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The Art of Ambrose Shields Returns to Little Eagle

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Artist Ambrose Shields, circa 1950's.
Photo: Unknown

Paintings by Ambrose Shields have returned to the elementary school in Little Eagle, long after a fire destroyed the old school and his murals within.

Nobody knows how many of Ambrose Shields' paintings are still out there. The painter made his mark in the North Central South Dakota area in the 1950's, inspiring younger artists, but chances are his paintings are in collections around the country or even the world.

Shields was born near Little Eagle on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in 1903. He was one of nine children, the son of Patrick and Jane Shields. His father was a rancher and Episcopal minister at the Church of the Good Shepherd in rural Corson County.

As a child he attended the Little Oak Day School, then the Flandreau Indian School. Shields left for California as a teen and joined the Merchant Marine, traveling to Europe and Asia. At some point in his travels, he became a self-taught artist, painting mostly in oils.

Though he was a prolific painter, he worked various jobs to help pay the bills. He often painted site-specific works, including a series on Lakota history for the old Little Eagle School. The school moved to a new building in 1980's, and the murals were lost when the old building was destroyed by fire.

A painting by Ambrose Shields.

At a young age, artist Del Iron Cloud was inspired by the murals at the Little Eagle school. "One was depicting the Indians chasing a herd of buffalo stampeding," says Iron Cloud.

"And as a child, you get so into that. You can just stand there and you can almost hear the buffalo running and the dust flying and all of that.

"Then on the other side, there was more of a quiet scene. The Indians were sitting on their horses, looking way off in the distance, and there was this wagon train going by. And you can kind of make up your own story if you will, as you're standing there looking at these. They were so interesting that I decided that some day I might be an artist and I can paint like that."

Iron Cloud is a muralist in his own right. He has created large scale works for casinos, the South Dakota Hall of Fame, Sioux Falls Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Denver International Airport. "I've really pursued this career," says Iron Cloud, "and always give my thanks to Ambrose."

Everett Chasing Hawk teaches Lakota language and coaches basketball at Little Eagle Grant School. ("The Legend" scored 57 points in a 1969 game for the Fort Yates Warriors, a North Dakota Class A record). He also attended the old Little Eagle school as a child.

"I grew up in that school for nine years, from kindergarten to eighth grade," says Chasing Hawk. "And the mural that was there was just outstanding."   

Chasing Hawk was in the military when the old school building burned down, but just a few weeks ago, art work by Ambrose Shields returned to the Little Eagle.

"Richard Voorhees, I went to school with him too," says Chasing Hawk. "His dad was a principal here at Little Eagle for many years. Richard had [several Ambrose Shields' paintings] in his possession and he decided to give them to the school."

Ambrose Shields' work explored traditional Lakota, Western and rodeo themes and landscapes. He was reputed to paint certain subjects by request.  "When I was younger, when we lived in Aberdeen there was a house that he painted a mural on the garage door," recalls Jana Shields Gipp, a relative. "We used to drive by it all the time. He just would go to people and paint something for them."

Shields Gipp says there are probably Ambrose Shields paintings far from South Dakota. "There has to be. Somebody from the East coast had written a letter to the editor of the McLaughlin Messenger. He had some paintings of Ambrose's and he wanted to collect more."

Shields' artistic career was tragically cut short when he was assaulted one night in 1963 after cashing a paycheck in McIntosh. He lived for twenty years after the attack but was never able to paint again.  

A mural by Ambrose Shields can be seen at the Indian Health Service hospital in Fort Yates, and one of his paintings is on display at the Klein Museum in Mobridge. Many more probably adorn the walls of local, and possibly not-so local, homes. Now, after several decades, his work is back on the walls of the school in Little Eagle.